Metropolitan Washington, like most American cities and suburbs, contains tens of thousands of garden apartments. Garden apartment projects ring the Capital Beltway, cluster around shopping centers and line arterial roads and highways. Sometimes they coexist with other types of housing -- high rises, town houses and even single-family homes.

Many are composed of disorderly arrays of buildings sitting in landscapes dominated by drives, parking lots, cars and trash dumpsters. In some complexes, getting oriented and finding an address or specific apartment are practically impossible, especially at night.

Undifferentiated lawns, perhaps in need of weeding, stretch between and around buildings. In older projects, deciduous and evergreen trees may have grown to substantial size, along with shrubs planted many years pre-Rarely do you see a literal garden, formal or informal, in English, French or Italian traditions. In fact, garden apartments, the most typical form of low-rise, middle-density housing in America, probably should be called "walk-up" apartments instead. viously. But rarely do you see a literal garden, formal or informal, in English, French or Italian traditions. In fact, garden apartments, the most typical form of low-rise, middle-density housing in America, probably should be called "walk-up" apartments instead.

The association of apartments with gardens began in the 19th century when planners first contemplated transplanting relatively dense housing types from inner city to suburb. Until then, most of the "country" environment outside of cities was reserved for pastoral cottages and villas owned by the affluent. That the petit bourgeoisie or laboring classes might choose, let alone be able to afford, non-agrarian country living then seemed socially and economically inconceivable.

Nevertheless, designers like Ebenezer Howard and Frederick Olmsted were able to contemplate more integrative, utopian strategies for settling and shaping land. Cities, they and others believe, could and should be garden-like for all inhabitants.

They foresaw verdant metropolises with both densely occupied structures and open space, yet without congestion. Proper physical and mental health would be ensured by adequate light, ventilation and sunshine. Beautifully designed and maintained gardens, public and private, would stimulate the senses while providing areas for passive and active recreation. Future cities would become giant parks, belts and gardens of green linked together by picturesque, meandering roads and lanes, with buildings used to frame and punctuate and landscape.

Thus was born the idea of the apartment block as "object-in-the-garden." Suburban apartment buildings started appearing at the turn of the century in both Europe and America. But it wasn't long before there was less and less garden.

It was, of course, the automobile that invaded Eden. One only has to consider area and density figures to realize how and why the automobile took over.

Start with an acre of land, about 43,000 square feet. Garden apartment densities can range from 20 to 40 dwelling units per acre, with 25 to 35 units per acre being fairly common -- about two to three times the density achievable with town houses.

Assume a single apartment building three stories high and containing 36 units, 12 of which are at ground level. If the average apartment size is 800 square feet, then the building will cover about 10,000 square feet of land, almost one fourth of the acre.

A double-loaded parking lot -- cars on two sides of a driving aisle -- including aisles and access drives, consumes about 350 square feet per car. If one parking space is provided for each of the 36 apartments, then a 36-car parking lot and access drive will consume about 13,000 square feet of land.

If 1.5 parking spaces per unit are required, about 19,000 square feet will be paved. Providing 20 parking spaces per apartment produces 25,000 square feet of paving, covering nearly 60 percent of the given acre. In the latter case, with the building covering 10,000 square feet and the parking taking up 25,000 square feet, only about 8,000 square feet -- less than 20 percent of the original acre -- remains as open space.

It is not unusual, especially in suburban locations poorly served by public transportation, for jurisdictions (through zoning) and developers to insist on parking ratios of 1.5 to 2 cars per dwelling unit to accommodate both residents and visitors. In these circumstances, it's easy to see why some garden apartments would be better labeled "cars 'n' apartments."

Nevertheless, garden apartments have undeniable economic advantages, whether designed for sale or rental. On a square footage basis, they are the least expensive type of housing to build, cheaper than high- or mid-rise apartments, cheaper than town houses or detached homes.

Visualize a prototypical garden apartment building segment, one section of units sharing a single entry and stairway. The most efficient version usually has 12 units in it, organized in three stories with four apartments per floor. In the center, the common stairway leads directly from the outside to each floor. Sometimes the stairway is fully enclosed, but often it is open to the weather, though it may be roofed.

In plan, two units per floor sit back to back on one side of the entry stair, mirrored by two units back to back on the other side of the stair. Each pair of units share a party wall. Half the apartments have windows facing the "front," while the other half inevitably face the "back." Except for units at the end of buildings, most apartments have only one exterior window wall.

Walls between adjoining 12-unit segments also become party walls along which changes in topography, or back-and-forth shifts, can be made. Thus the hypothetical 36-unit building sitting on its acre might consist of three 12-unit segments, three stories high, with three separate stairway entries. With identical apartments stacked vertically, with kitchens and bathrooms aligned and backed up to each other, this is an extremely simple building type to design and construct -- over and over again.

Its efficiencies are many. Segments can be standardized, repeated and joined together to make buildings of varying size. A segment's roof and foundation serve 12 units, but their area is equivalent to only four units. Interior party walls and floors are shared. A single stair provides access to 12 apartments. Elevators, a major construction expense, are not required as they would be in higher apartment buildings.

Most significant from a cost point of view, building codes in many jurisdictions allow garden apartments to be constructed using conventional wood framing, just like town houses or detached homes. Exterior walls and party walls may have to be fire resistant, but sometimes even these are framed in wood. Such construction is usually less expensive than masonry, steel or concrete.

Garden apartments come in all sizes, price ranges and styles. "Amenity packages," both within apartment units and communally, vary widely. After several post-war decades of predominantly lackluster apartment building, design consciousness seems to be rising. Despite the unavoidable presence of on-site parking, more creative thinking by developers, architects, zoning commissions and consumers may yet transform the garden apartrment into the vision seen a century ago.

NEXT: Garden-apartment design and site planning.